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A Pioneering Astrophysicist's Private Observatory Hidden in a Pasadena Backyard

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Photo by Scott Kardel
Photo by Scott Kardel

On an upscale residential street between the Huntington Library and Caltech in Pasadena, tucked behind "a pure 1980s teardown," is a solar observatory built in the 1920s for George Ellery Hale, the Egyptophile astronomer who helped found the Mt. Wilson Observatory, was a driving force behind the development of modern astrophysics, discovered magnetic fields in sunspots, and convinced railroad magnate Henry Huntington to open his gardens up to the common folk. The California Sunday magazine finds this incredible relic in the hands of husband-and-wife architectural duo Stefanos Polyzoides and Liz Moule (of the firm Moule & Polyzoides), who bought the little observatory and the "ugly, stupid" house that fronts the property because they were fascinated by Hale's incredible personal lab.

The Hale Solar Laboratory, a nationally registered landmark, was commissioned in 1924 and designed by prominent Pasadena firm Johnson, Kaufman & Coate; the Spanish Colonial Revival building was built with a 30-foot-tall observatory tower with equipment for viewing the sun, along with a personal library for Hale's 25,000 books. To further personalize the place, Hale had sculptor Lee Lawrie create two bas reliefs, one over the doorway, and one over the fireplace, according to the National Park Service. Hale bought the land for his observatory from his pal, Henry Huntington; prior to his purchase, the land had been an orange grove.

After Hale died in 1938, he left the observatory to the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington DC and they used it for about two decades, but after that, "Then the place languished." Polyzoides had been keeping tabs on Hale's lab since the 1970s, but didn't get a chance to buy it until 2006—after someone had built a "bland, outsize stucco" house in front of it. Still, the observatory trumped the tacky residence. In Polyzoides's words: "I say, 'Holy shit, Liz, this is for sale. This is the most incredible property.'" Moule knew about the astronomer's historical importance ("Hale was giant, a genuine renaissance person"), so saving the observatory was an easy decision.

After buying the property, the couple found that the tower was messy, but intact—four-foot-tall stacks of paper and important artifacts had been just left in the building and two architectural illustrations from the building's origins, Hale's collection of journals, glass plates that recorded some of Hale's work, "hand-blown Edison bulbs" all turned up inside the laboratory. Moule and Polyzoides recently installed the late astronomer's old oak desk from the Mount Wilson Observatory. Though definitely a private property now, Moule and Polyzoides have opened up the laboratory to the astronomers from Mount Wilson's observatory, and have also used it to host fundraisers and cultural events.

· Home of the Stars: A monument to the universe lies hidden behind a hedge in Pasadena [CSM]
· Hale Solar Laboratory [NPS]
· A Visit to the Hale Solar Laboratory [Palomar Skies]
· Take a Breathtaking Ride to the Top of Mt. Wilson's Solar Tower [Curbed LA]